Transitional housing residents protest rule change

EVERETT — When word got out that the city of Everett might change the definition of “family,” people got angry.

The city is planning a change to its code that would bring more group homes under more regulation.

That’s concerning to people who own or live at transitional housing, also known as clean-and-sober houses.

Earlier in August, dozens of people who live at those houses came to a City Council meeting, many of them apparently under the impression that their homes would soon be closed.

“We have a problem with homelessness in the city as it is,” said Robert Kohl, who lives in a transitional home on Everett Avenue. “To make more homelessness doesn’t solve the problem.”

“These people are giving me a place to stay where I won’t get wet or cold, or catch a cold,” said James Conway, who said he subsists on $60 a month in food stamps, is a sex offender and has degenerative bone disease that prevents him from working.

“You close this house where I’m at — I had to figure it out — at least 14 people on the street,” Conway said.

The protesters called attention to recent examples of bad behavior as a way of indicating they were atypical of the houses. Those cases included the February arrest of halfway house operator Timothy Rehberg on suspicion of selling drugs and the March sentencing of another halfway house manager for murder.

The code change under consideration is intended to bridge a gap in regulations, said Allan Giffen, Everett’s planning director.

Right now houses with four or fewer unrelated adult residents are largely unregulated. But for people with disabilities, including addictions, up to eight can live in a home with the same level of oversight.

The code change would reduce that number to four, so there would be no distinction between homes housing people with disabilities and those housing people without them.

A house that has more than four adults (or currently, eight in a clean-and-sober house) triggers a more rigorous review of the house’s permits.

Often, the city becomes aware of a house that isn’t in compliance, such as having emergency access to all of the sleeping rooms. The trigger is usually an emergency call to the house or a neighbor’s complaint, Giffen said.

“This happens oftentimes usually with older homes with rooms that have been converted in a basement or attic,” Giffen said.

“The situation where we have problems with this is usually when a landlord wants to put more people in a house than it’s designed for,” he said.

The change isn’t sitting well with Michael Westford, who owns several transitional homes in Everett.

“What we’ve tried to do is we’ve tried to help,” Westford said at the Aug. 17 council meeting. “We’re taking people that fall through the cracks.”

Westford declined to comment further to a reporter.

Mayor Ray Stephanson encouraged the housing owners to work with the city to make sure their properties meet code.

“You have my pledge that we will work with you, if you show a willingness to ensure that if there are safety issues in those residences that they are resolved,” Stephanson said.

The code change is scheduled to go before the city planning commission Sept. 20.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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